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Pontiff's Plan to Visit Cuba Raises International Worries

By Stanley Meisler
Los Angeles Times

Evidence is mounting that Pope John Paul II plans a visit in 1997 to Cuba, an act that could give international legitimacy to a nation that the U.S. government wants to isolate.

A senior Vatican diplomat, Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran, is scheduled to arrive in Havana in late October. No official reason for the Tauran trip has been announced but both Vatican and U.S. sources have confirmed that discussion of a probable papal visit will be the main item on Tauran's agenda.

It has been an open secret for years that the pope believed the time had come to break the international isolation of Cuba and the Castro regime - now that tensions between the church and the island government have eased. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman, told reporters more than a year ago that a papal visit to the Caribbean island was probable in 1996.

But the 76-year-old pope's schedule has been slowed by his health problems - he is recovering now from an appendix operation. And, according to U.S. sources, no official invitation ever came from Fidel Castro.

Reports of an impending papal visit have disquieted the Cuban-American National Foundation, the most powerful political arm of the Cuban exile community in the United States. These exiles fear the pope would mute his criticism of communism on Cuban soil, instead celebrating closer relations between the church and state there.

"If the pope is going to Cuba and the visit is being controlled, we are not happy about it," said Ninoska Perez, foundation spokeswoman in Miami. She quoted her "sources in the island close to the church" as reporting that the regime would try to prevent any large outdoor masses by the pope and insist on setting up a photo of the pope shaking the hand of Castro.

"This pope has been a very effective and vocal critic of communism," Perez said. "He fought communism in his native land of Poland. When he went to South Africa during apartheid, he did not kiss the ground. When he went to Sandinista Nicaragua, he scolded the priest Ernesto Cardenal (a member of the Sandinista government). To me, to have a meeting with Fidel Castro and not to mention what is wrong with Cuba is wrong.

"I would not be upset," she went on, "if the pope would really tell Castro the things that he must hear. But if it is a trip just for publicity's sake, it is really upsetting."

A Clinton administration official, however, professed no concern. "The pope always goes on his own terms," the official said. "The pope doesn't negotiate conditions. He tells them: I'm going to say what I'm going to say.' I don't see the papal visit conferring any legitimacy on Castro. The pope might not call for rebellion but he's also not going to praise Castro."

But Wayne Smith, a former American diplomat who follows Cuban events at the Center for International Policy, said: "The fact that the pope would go to Cuba would be an important suggestion that Cuba is ready for reinsertion into the international community."

The fanfare over the trip, Smith said, is unlikely to change the U.S. policy of isolation, which is powered by the Cuban exile community and influential conservative congressmen. "I'm not sure anything would have an effect on U.S. policy," Smith said. "But I think the papal visit would make it more difficult for the administration to argue the logic of its policy."

A visit also likely would feature a papal condemnation of the U.S. economic boycott of Cuba. On a plane trip from Rome to New York in 1995, the pope, when asked about the embargo, told reporters that "a people, a nation must not suffer." Even when the church was feuding with Castro 25 years ago, the Cuban Catholic bishops condemned the American boycott.

Despite papal opposition to the boycott, Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman, has told the media that John Paul II does not intend to serve as a mediator trying to arrange for the lifting of the embargo.

Meantime, cardiologist Attilio Maseri said in Rome Thursday that the pope was "in really great shape" after the removal of an inflamed appendix two days earlier. "I'm really visiting him more for reasons of affection and devotion at this point than for medical reasons," he said.